Review: Spenser Confidential (2020) – Morals Absent Intelligence.

Winston Duke, Alan Arkin and Mark Wahlberg in Spenser Confidential

Marking the fifth collaboration between director Peter Berg and Wahlberg, Spenser Confidential steps away from the real world stories of Lone Survivor, Patriot’s Day and Deepwater Horizon, instead adapting one of Robert B. Parker’s revered Spenser novels, a series about a hardened Boston private eye and the various cases he finds himself embroiled in. Berg’s film, an adaption of Wonderland by Ace Atkins is a clear attempt at franchise building but gone is any sense of mystery that may have existed in this detective story as Spenser (Wahlberg) and new friend Hawk (Winston Duke) take on corrupt cops with a smile on their face and a spring in their step, cracking wise while reminding you that nothing in this forgettable film is even remotely important.

Spenser is an ex-cop, a man whose mother taught him to stand by his strong morals, something recanted to us like he is trying to convince himself of his own superiority as he tries to console a grieving mother. It serves as Spenser Confidential’s only moment of character building and its a clumsy one at that. Leaving a rotten taste in your mouth, he then proceeds to threaten random members of the public, wreck a local burrito restaurant in the name of ‘action-comedy’ and indulge in a variety of poorly conceived penis jokes as Hawk reminds us he is a decent human being by informing us of his status as a proud…vegan?

While Berg and screenwriters Sean O’Keefe and Brian Helgeland remind us that these two anti-heroes are ex-cons, both trying to reshape their lives after their release, they perpetually paint them as saints in a town looking to villainise them. Problem is for all their good deeds, their actions make them seem like inconsiderate and thoroughly unlikable fools. Spenser isn’t the hard boiled, intelligent fighter of this story, he’s just not as bad as the people he surrounds himself with. It’s like making yourself look taller by having lots of short friends. After a while its impossible not to clock on to the con.

While the drive for humour here is understandable, especially considering Wahlberg’s ability for sarcastic backbiting and physical comedy, it doesn’t really mesh with a plot more interested in classic noir corruption tropes. Despite the addition of comedy staples like Alan Arkin and stand-up comedian Iliza Shlesinger, they can’t fight through a thick fog of poorly crafted dialogue. Dated jokes about cloud storage designed to make Spenser feel like an old school private eye are poor replacements for genuine personality and while Wahlberg gives his all, it just becomes another placeholder performance in a film full of them. Duke is saddled with the role of angry side-kick, a character meant to look mean but rarely open his mouth, which would be hard to do anyway considering Spenser never shuts up.

While its completely watchable, mainly because at this point Wahlberg could play characters like Spenser in his sleep and the action is well constructed if completely superfluous to a plot that never requires it, Spenser Confidential feels like a first instalment in a Netflix series that could easily make you waste two hours in the clutches of the streaming service but whether or not you should is the real question you find yourself wondering come the end of this bloated and poorly constructed adaptation.


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